When the Bengal Turned Blue

“The motion of a tiger’s prey is more critical than its color, and although cats, like grazing animals, have the physiological basis for two dimensions of color, it is extremely difficult to train them to respond to color.” —Colin Ware

Throughout our evolved existence, many species have flourished without the ability to see the distinct range of color that man is able to see. In fact, man’s abilities are somewhat limited as well. But, in a world where accomplished designers, production technicians and even young children can alter a color palette to suit virtually any aesthetic, do the laws of color need to be studied? Apart from purely decorative applications and repetitive familiarity—how many colors can we really perceive?

Is color vision really all that important?

As a simple exercise, shifting the hue of recognized NFL logos may help prove the level of importance color plays in perception—with a fan’s recognition of their sports team. As shared affiliations, these cultural symbols are important aspects of visual and emotional equity, as are the colors that help describe them. Additionally, this exercise may help illustrate a more significant issue. Color is the intersection of both art and science. While Colin Ware acknowledges this in both Information Visualization and Visual Thinking, his approach to color is decidedly scientific and systematic, opting for a “theory-based approach to how color should be used in design.”

But what is the theory?

A complex subject, color theory is based upon a number of scientific and technical principles. As with the disciplines of colorimetry specification and color reproduction, color perception is largely a process of science, not an aesthetic interpretation. Not unlike a camera, the human eye’s retina includes light receptors—rods and cones. The retina’s low-light receptors—rods—have become a less important aspect of human visual perception. Modern lighting technology has provided man with less need for low-light or night vision. On the other hand, cones play a dominant role in our ability to see color, with three basic types—low, middle and long sensitivities. These sensitivities give man three distinct dimensions of perception. Each dimension adds greatly to the visualization of information—in both the natural world and in the world of design.

But how many colors do we really need?

While human visual ability can only distinguish a small portion of the millions—if not billions—of colors in existence, there is still a systematic method involved with our perception of color. We rely upon the physical limitations of our light reception to both recognize and categorize color. Understanding these limitations can only help to support the designer’s use of color as a communication tool.

Certainly, there is no argument against the use of color to aesthetically represent professional athletic organizations. However, the choices made to represent each are based upon a relatively small—and easily described—color gamut. The colors in each logo have been selected based upon cultural significance, recognized meaning or historical significance. Each color pairing is also easily distinguished from another. Much like Ware’s example of fruit in wild brush, the use of color to differentiate is a designer’s tool of an almost evolutionary proportion.

Only out of context, does our eye start to have problems with the classification and recognition of these logos and the world around us.

There is no doubt a blue Cincinnati Bengal would create visual perception issues for spectators, commentators and even players during a game with either the Carolina Panthers or Jacksonville Jaguars. But color is not recognized in isolation and while the simple hue shift portrayed in the NFL examples would confuse some, the irony is that a tiger—or even an individual with color blindness—would still differentiate the teams, based upon the contrast of the symbol’s graphic patterns.

So what happened when the Bengal turned blue? It simply became more difficult for man to distinguish him from his surroundings. Living without color could be very dangerous.